KIGALI, Rwanda -- His memory is a swirl of radio broadcasts, beer breaks and hillside mobs. Even the details that should be indelible are blurred, such as those connected with the morning two years ago when he killed his neighbor's two young children with a wooden club spiked with nails.
"I didn't want to. I didn't mean to kill them. I didn't know what I was doing," says Innocent Nsengiyumva, nervously hugging himself in a military office next to the cell where he has lived since arriving last month as part of the flood of Hutu refugees returning from Zaire.
Like some other returnees who have murder allegations lodged against them, Nsengiyumva says he was grateful when the authorities came to arrest him. He had moved back to his village but began receiving death threats.
The confessions Nsengiyumva and others are offering are significant because they are precisely what the government needs from tens of thousands of other prisoners if Rwanda is ever to render justice for the 1994 genocide of 800,000 members of the Tutsi minority, and if the Tutsi-led government that took power after the killings is ever to win acceptance within the country's borders.
Over the past two years, nearly 85,000 Hutus who remained in Rwanda have been denounced as murderers and jammed into fetid prisons. The first trial did not begin until last week. So far, no one has been convicted. There are major hurdles for the prosecution: Few witnesses survived, and most physical evidence is buried in mass graves or washed down muddy rivers.
But the highest hurdle is the conspiracy of silence in the prisons, where the old Hutu hierarchy has been reborn. Few inmates will admit that there was a genocide at all, much less that they took part.
The government hopes to break their silence by segregating the worst suspects in a special prison. Government ministers have been visiting the prisons to promote a new law that categorizes genocide suspects and allows rank-and-file killers to confess and name their accomplices and superiors in exchange for a prison sentence as short as seven years.
It is a tough sell.
"The new law is a trick," says Felix Mbyayinga, a 26-year-old inmate at the Kigali Central Prison, after a visit by the ministers. "They ask people to agree they have done something. But what is the guarantee that I will be released if I accept?"
The government recently published a list of 1,946 suspects that it hopes to put on trial and -- if found guilty -- execute. They include the genocide's planners as well as priests and local authorities and, in the words of the law, "notorious murderers who by virtue of the zeal or excessive malice with which they committed atrocities, distinguished themselves in their areas of residence or where they passed."
Rwanda is for the moment more stable than it has been in years. Its most pressing problems -- the refugee camps in eastern Zaire and their use as bases for Hutu militants to launch raids -- are gone. And the country has strong support from the West, particularly the United States, which provides military training in "small-unit soldiering."
Washington also raised no objection when evidence showed that Rwanda was supporting the rebels in eastern Zaire who eventually dismantled the camps.
The return of about 500,000 Hutu refugees has shifted the problems to inside Rwanda.
Even though Hutus outnumber Tutsis in the Cabinet, the government is still perceived as a tool of domination by Tutsis, who make up about 15 percent of the population. The Tutsi-run army has been reluctant to turn over power to a civilian administration.
With the refugee influx, the need to sort the guilty from the innocent has taken on a fresh urgency.
Leaders are starting with their own. This month, a military court tried an army commander whose troops killed several thousand Hutus in an attack in April 1995.
As for the perpetrators of the genocide against Tutsis, authorities have held off making arrests until the last of the 535,000 Hutu refugees in Tanzania resettle themselves at home. Thousands of former soldiers and officials are marked for eventual arrest; prosecutors have been told to speed up the release of prisoners when evidence is scant, to make room for new suspects.
Fewer than 200 returnees have been arrested so far, according to United Nations human rights monitors -- and this angers Tutsi survivors of the genocide.
Many of them still live around military posts and markets TTC because they are too frightened to return to their villages, where the ruins of their houses have been swallowed by the bush. Their fear is that the murderers will strike again, this time to eliminate witnesses. A few have already been killed since the Hutu refugees returned.
Sam Gody, who survived the genocide by hiding in a septic tank for six weeks and lived off a crate of church wafers, recently came face to face with a returnee who helped kill his six brothers and sisters. Gody and two friends confronted the man, a farmer he had known for years.
"He had a normal face," Gody says. "He never said sorry or expressed remorse. I became shy when I saw him. I couldn't understand what happened. First I greeted him. Then I said, 'Is it true you killed my family?'
" 'I only cut off your brother's hands,' " the man responded, according to Gody. " 'Others came and killed him.' "
Then he handed over a list of seven men whom he claimed were the real killers. He was arrested -- for his own protection, the authorities said -- but released a few days later.
Nsengiyumva, a peasant farmer in his mid-20s, feels safer in jail.
"I don't want to go back to my village," he says. "People could kill me. Even now if they release me, I can't accept."
His story has so many holes that the number of people he killed easily could be 20 or 200, not the two to which he admits. He can't remember if the victims were boys or girls, only that they each must have been around 6 years old.
For two weeks, or perhaps two months -- he says he is not sure -- he followed the mob. He says he enjoyed hunting the Tutsi enemy but was sorry to kill. He was ordered to do it, but not by anyone in particular.
"If you were there -- things were strange," he says. "I can't find any way to explain it to you. Can you imagine the radio saying, 'Go kill these people?'
"The message got to the local authorities. They mobilized the soldiers and the militias and they were going to the villages getting civilians to kill people. We accepted. They said we were fighting for the country."
Slaughter became a routine. "Whenever we passed a bar, we drank," he says. "Sometimes we bought it, sometimes the soldiers stole it. We used to go back to our houses for lunch. After lunch we got together again."
For the first week of the massacres on his hillside, Nsengiyumva followed the mob, clutching his spiked club, and only watched others kill, he says -- "like a child watching something his father is doing."
His turn to murder came when the crowd spotted the two children. They didn't try to escape, he says.
"I didn't run to them. I didn't call them."
And they didn't scream, he says, until he began striking them in the head, with the wooden club spiked with nails.
"They were just there and I killed them. There were so many people there."
Pub Date: 12/30/96